Democracy sprouts in Taiwan

Election a first
for ancient civilization

March 21, 1996
Web posted at: 11 p.m. EST (0400 GMT)

From Correspondent Mike Chinoy

TAIPEI, Taiwan (CNN) -- The Chinese civilization dates back 5,000 years. But never in that time has a Chinese society freely elected its leader. Never, that is, until now.

Taiwan's presidential election Saturday represents a historic turning point -- a fact not lost on the island's 14 million voters.


The campaign has been conducted against a backdrop of continued Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, which has made Taiwan's relation with China virtually the only election issue.


Here, the four candidates differ sharply. Officially, president Lee Teng-hui, widely viewed as the favorite, supports eventual re-unification with China. But he's made it clear that it's a long-term goal.

In the meantime, he's enraged Beijing by seeking to lift Taiwan's international profile.


Lee's chief opponent, Peng Ming-min, is a veteran dissident who spent years in exile in the United States. Peng has run his campaign on one theme: full-fledged independence for Taiwan

The two other candidates are Chen Li-an, a devout Buddhist who favors cleaner government, and independent Lin Yang-kang. Both oppose Taiwan independence and support better relations with China. Neither is expected to do well.

For weeks, the candidates have swept across the island, flooding the streets with posters and billboards as each party seeks to look cleaner by sullying its rivals.

The campaign has captured the popular imagination, with its issues debated on talk radio and cable television.


Indeed, the level of public enthusiasm has reflected the importance of the event -- not just for Taiwan, but for the future of democracy in a region where many, including the Chinese government in Beijing, insist democracy is not a suitable form of government.

"The lesson to those who believe that Asian and Chinese cannot enjoy democracy is 'Come to Taiwan and experience it every day,'" sociologist Michael Hsiao said.

Unquestionably, the election is going to change the face of Taiwan. But it's not going to change geography. The island is still just 90 miles off the coast of mainland China. Whatever political direction Taiwan's voters choose to go, their newly elected president will still have to find a way to live with his giant neighbor on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

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